Water was yet again the straw that broke the camel’s back as residents of Majakaneng, on the north-western outskirts of Pretoria, blocked the N4 highway and set trucks and cars on fire.
The township falls under the beleaguered Madibeng municipality, placed under administration after violent protests a year ago – fuelled by lack of water supply – left several people dead.
While no life was lost at Majakaneng, protesters acknowledged that blocking the highway would restrict trade and negatively affect the economy.
But they were not bothered. “If we block the highway, the government will listen to us. It is the only language authorities understand,” said Gilbert Majadidu.
The teenager said water supply had been a major problem since he was born, with priority being given to mining houses at the expense of residents. Majakaneng was neglected and had the worst of everything, including roads, he said.
“Water from the local reservoir is used to supply the mines with no drop left for us,” he added.
Tshepang Sedumeli saw the lighter side of the water shortage, saying he was of a darker skin because he had not bathed and would be handsome if there was water. Next to them, smoke bellowed from two trucks that had been set alight – a delivery truck and one that was taking coal to the mines. Further down the road, another truck had been burnt, as had several private cars.
Scrap metal scavengers started tearing them apart as soon as the flames had died down. A bus transporting tourists was burnt on Monday, the first day of the protests.
Witnesses said truck drivers attempted to make a U-turn on realising the chaos, but were outnumbered and forced to abandon their heavy duty vehicles. The Clicks truck was looted while the second still had its full trailer of coal.
But it was the bridge that connects Majakaneng and the neighbouring Bapong that was the scene of the altercation between residents and the police.
The lawmen and women fired teargas and rubber bullets into the unrelenting crowd burning tyres on the on- and off-ramps.
As the hot summer sun shone brightly on the mountains a few kilometres up the road, the protesters retreated into the township, returning moments later as the cat and mouse incident that played itself out all morning intensified.
The police, who were vastly outnumbered, eventually moved in decisively at 1pm, after watching while the crowd took control of the highway and its sub-roads.
Two women, one carrying a crying child, were engulfed in teargas fumes as they attempted to walk across the bridge.
Pandemonium broke out as police chased a protester down the on-ramp, only for him to surrender. He was locked up in the van together with several others who had been arrested.
A brave motorist in a white Porsche drew attention back to the highway as he hit the gas and sped away from the mob that would possibly have burnt it.
The Porsche was the only car to use the deserted highway all day.
Businesses were closed for the day, either due to lack of water or out of fear of looting often associated with violent protests.
Methodist Church ministers Paul Verryn and Dan Twala approached the rampaging crowd to act as peacemakers, but abandoned the mission as stones rained towards them.
Verryn expressed concern that the protesters were teenagers who should be in school.
He said neither were they the local leaders he met with earlier to defuse the tension.
The former anti-apartheid campaigner later told journalists he was disturbed by the relationship between police and communities during service delivery protests.
Normal movement of people between Majakaneng and Bapong resumed as the afternoon progressed, but tension still filled the air.
By 3pm, the roads were being cleared and burnt cars and trucks were removed, but the trouble was far from over.
Armed police officers maintained a strong presence while their colleagues in Nyalas patrolled the area.
Meanwhile, the North West government said it was determined to bring a lasting solution to the recurring water and sanitation problems in Madibeng, including Majakaneng.
It has tasked Sedibeng Water with the responsibility to assess and come up with measures that could put an end to the challenges in the entire municipality.
The Department of Local Government and Human Settlements was also meeting relevant parties to come up with immediate interventions to the current situation in Majakaneng.
Premier Supra Mahumapelo appealed to the residents to exercise patience and desist from damaging property.
Mahumapelo added that “violence should not be seen as a means to resolving problems”.